Monday, March 09, 2009

/l/-vocalization in Singapore English

‘If you are a Tampines resident clamouring for “mall, mall, mall” so as to enjoy greater shopping choices, ...’ (Sunday Times, 8 March 2009).
Obviously this was a pun on ‘clamouring for more’: in Singapore, the words mall and more are homophones for many speakers because the final /l/ consonant in mall is deleted or vocalized (i.e. becomes a vowel).
This phenomenon, known as /l/-vocalization, appears to be most common among ethnic Chinese speakers of English because, in Mandarin and the more common ‘dialects’ (e.g. Hokkien, Teochew), /l/ is not possible in the coda of a syllable. Contrast this with Malay and Tamil, which have words and indeed names like pukul and Tamil.
A grammatical error crops up later in the same quote: greater choices. Since choices here is used here as a countable noun, it should read more choices.
No doubt greater can mean ‘more’, but in this sense it goes only with uncountable nouns, e.g. greater choice/variety. (Choice can be used either as a countable or an uncountable noun.)


David Deterding said...

This suggests that L-vocalisation is more common among Chinese Singaporeans than Malays and Indians, and it would be interesting to test this. That sounds like an interesting research topic for a student.

One other thing: is L-vocalisation the same as deletion? Maybe deletion is the extreme of vocalisation? I'm not sure about this, but I suspect there is a difference. For example, L-vocalisation is very common in London (Estuary English), but I don't think 'more' and 'mall' become homophones.

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Yes, I've found (having now taught two batches of BA phonetics undergrads) that the Chinese are most prone to vocalizing their /l/, and Indians least so, with Malays somewhere in the middle.

Some Malay students have told me that they vocalize their /l/ in 'wolf' but not in 'all'. This makes sense, I think, if you look at the phonotactics of Malay, because it has words and names with /l/ as a single-member coda but not (to my knowledge) in a consonant cluster.

I've tended to lump /l/-vocalization and deletion together for convenience, but both are found in Singapore English, and in complementary distribution. So, yes, I'd say it is the opposite of what happens in London/EE.